A high school friend is passing through town with her family, so we invite them to dinner in the Kid Corral at Cowgirl BBQ. I haven’t seen Lauren since she was a spandex-clad modern dancer whose father had a house overlooking the Long Island Sound. She is married now with two precocious boys and lives in the next town over from where we grew up. As we make small talk (we’ll never get to large talk), I ask if she still dances.
“No, not really,” she says, crinkling her nose.
“But she’s a yoga fanatic,” her husband, Dwayne, pipes in from across the picnic table.
“Oh really?” I lean in. “You know, I’ve taught twice at Kripalu.”
For those of you outside the yoga thrill cult, Kripalu is a major yoga center nestled in the Berkshires approximately three hours north of New York City. Citing Kripalu to my old high school chum is akin to mentioning backdoor access to The Vatican in a room full of rosary-bead-worrying Catholics.
Lauren squints and slowly eyes me up and down. I know what she’s thinking: What could this man with more chins than a Chinese phone book teach at Kripalu? A course in the miracles of overeating?
Lauren’s scrutinizing gaze is familiar. My wife Lala and I tried Bikram yoga, otherwise known as “hot yoga,” earlier this year and, before becoming a special case for the barking instructor in the musty oven they call a studio, I was asked at registration if I had ever tried any form of yoga before. “Only once,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “At Kripalu.”
“What were you doing there?” the lithesome woman sheathed in natural fibers kindly wondered.
“Teaching,” I said and signed my name, promising not to die because of any medical issues hiding under my loose fitting clothing.
The shock and awe on the formerly find-your-bliss faces clued me in that I was a spying intruder into this land called yoga. The truth of the matter is that I was invited to teach writing at Kripalu with my friend Natalie. All I knew about yoga were a few unsavory jokes about Sting pleasuring himself and his wife numerous times without a cigarette break.
I had arrived on the well-manicured grounds between Lenox and Stockbridge a day early, dropped my bags off and gone to lunch. The cafeteria was chock-full of women donning colorful clothes that swished like active pajamawear. Chimey music tinkled in the background. I felt like some accidental tourist, dressed in cargo shorts and a wrinkled guayabera, as I pondered the organic, vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic offerings. The food was vibrant, plentiful and rather fresh, yet I had to stop to inspect the battalion of enzymes folks were dashing on their legumes and translate terms like “Buddha bowl” and something people kept referring to as “satan,” which I learned later was spelled “seitan” and had more to do with wheat protein than devil worship.
After I had filled my tray, I moved like a transfer student in the middle of seventh grade—the one who didn’t go to elementary school with all these holistic homegirls, didn’t share their predilections, lingo, cultivated gestures, movie references, song lyrics and slim bodies. It was worse to move aimlessly around in circles, yet I couldn’t stand there mouth agape, so I wandered the aisles between tables, watching two women with thick ropes of silver on their heads chew and gesture feverishly with their forks, and another group of younger females huddle together sharing secrets. I didn’t see that the tables in the back were reserved for Kripalu staff until I was upon them, so I turned on my heels and tried to act nonchalant, as if this strip of linoleum was my own private catwalk. I finally plopped down next to two 20-something women, both sporting lotus blossom tattoos on their right biceps.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” the one with her hair piled up like gluten-free spaghetti said.
Judging from the color and texture of her food, her mouth was full of kale.
“I know you have,” the other said.
From the looks of her tray, she was more of a squash person.
Wanting to learn more about this ascetic planet, I chewed my cud quietly.
“I just can’t decide the name of my studio. I’ve mediated on it, engaged some vision quests, scribbled morning papers, tried art therapy.”
Her dharma BFF nodded in such a caring way my own chakras aligned.
“Here goes.” Spaghetti Hair’s hands pressed together. “I can’t decide whether to call my studio Rising Spirit or Spirit Rising.”
“See what you mean.” Her friend took a cleansing breath and checked her teacup for signs.
They extolled the virtues and vital energies of each name, followed by possible negative connotations, karmic conundrums and catastrophes—for 25 minutes with no final decision. My body felt nourished from the food that was as good as any cafetorium I’d ever slid my tray across, but listening so closely to the sound of one hand clapping had scrambled my mind.
I headed for the bookstore, my usual place of solace, but things only got worse. Scarves of saffron languished over shelves and that same chimey tinkly music did battle with sandalwood and jasmine scents whirling dervishly in the air. The staff showed me books on Five Tibetan Rites (who knew there were only five?) next to one that incorporated yoga into your golf swing. The course listings offered yoga for kids, the elderly, couples and, I swear, I spotted yoga for former circus workers. Usually, my co-teacher Natalie translates all this for me into dog and cat English, but she wasn’t arriving until the next day, so I purchased some overpriced Shakti Rising lip balm and got the Bikram out of there.
Outside, the rain was pouring down, so I borrowed an umbrella and walked the two miles to Lenox. I needed to detox from all this yoga gaga, so I recalled the most annoying song I could think of, trying to silence the chimes and bells.
“We built this city. We built this city on rock and roll,” I sang, my mouth brimming with rainwater.
I ended up at the Olde Heritage Tavern like a soggy lost dog and took a stool at the end of the bar. I ordered a local beer and watched Mike, a stout guy stuffed into a suit jacket, move between his laptop and a video screen hung over the bathroom. His mouth never stopped working either, from his cell phone to the bartender to a big man who appeared to have some stake in the gin mill. There was something familiar about this dark and musty place filled with people who’d obviously spent years together discussing the Red Sox and Big Dig. I don’t know if it was because I looked (and smelled) like a sad sack or Mike was just a friendly guy, but he approached me.
“Hey buddy,” he said, extending his hand. “Where ya from?”
“Wow. Long way from home, aren’t you? Why Lenox?”
I told him about teaching at Kripalu and how I felt, well, more than a little lost up there.
“Well, you know buddy, I sell food and they buy more organic produce than anyone else for 500 miles. Hold on a sec.”
Clutching a handful of tickets, he went back to the video screen where little colored balls popped away from a string and revealed winning numbers.
“Hey knucklehead,” he yelled over to the owner, who was pulling beer for a couple of deliverymen. “We’re up 250.”
I realized here was a man who had followed his bliss and it had led him to his own version of moksha, liberation from all the suffering and limitation of worldly existence. Well, maybe not that, but he was a helluva nice guy and I needed a friend who didn’t know his downward dog from his happy baby.
I called over. “Whatcha playing?”
“Keno,” he said grinning. “And we just won.”
I pressed my hands together. “Teach me.”